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On cursory glance, the ivory trade seems alive and well in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Store windows feature intricately carved tusks. Creamy-colored statuettes glow in display cases. While these treasures and trinkets look like ivory, signs claim they’re actually cow or camel bone. But ivory or close imitation, these goods fuel demand for a supply bloodier than the shark fin soup The City banished a few years ago.
Scientists believe approximately 20 million elephants roamed Africa before European colonization. By 1979, 1.3 million remained. In September 2016, scientists surveyed 352,271 elephants.
International, federal and state governments have responded to these dramatic declines. Last year, California imposed a ban on selling tusks, teeth and horns from specific species, including elephants. China, the biggest ivory market, also recently announced it would phase out its ivory trade in 2017.
San Francisco’s compliance with these necessary restrictions is suspect, however. Whether out of truth, intentional resistance or a simple desire to dispose of old merchandise, proprietors label ivory-like goods as bone. While sometimes imitations are obvious, sometimes they look disturbingly real.
“There is a potential those items are mislabeled bone in an attempt to defraud the fact that it’s ivory,” Lt. Chris Stoots at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told me.
Last month, state wildlife workers inspected several San Francisco businesses and seized suspected ivory and illegal goods from two locations. Max Szabo at the District Attorney’s Office told me they expect to have enough information from the state to make charging decisions in the weeks ahead.
“The sale of ivory supports an industry that trades in the death of some of the world’s most majestic animals,” Szabo said.
Ivory sales also support criminal syndicates that trade in the death and suppression of people, like the terrifying Lord’s Resistance Army. Along with killing elephants, the Ugandan rebel group has raped, abducted, enslaved and murdered tens of thousands of African women, men and children. The LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, purportedly sells ivory to buy guns, ammunition and supplies.
The ivory supply is also linked to janjaweed, the violent Sudanese-government-backed militias used to suppress the Darfur rebellion. Over four months in 2012, poachers with ties to janjaweed butchered up to 650 elephants, including babies. The animals suffocated while poachers mutilated their bodies and removed their tusks.
These horrors inspired Congress to pass the (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act. The law enables the United States to provide tools and resources to combat the global poaching crisis. It also brings penalties in line with drug, arms and human trafficking.
But San Francisco shops selling suspicious bone carvings mock bipartisan federal efforts and state crackdowns. At best, these shops sell imitation illegal goods. At worst, their sales fund criminal groups and jeopardize human and elephant lives. Regardless, city shops are fueling demand. One proprietor of a store featuring tusks in the window told me customers come in and ask for ivory all the time.
San Francisco must get ivory out of shops like it got shark fin soup off menus. Before California banned the sale of shark fins in 2011, some San Franciscans would pay several hundred dollars for the delicacy. But the public prioritized a healthy ocean and humane fishing above the economic hit restaurant owners and merchants took.
“It’s very similar to ivory elephant tusks,” Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society of the United States said when the ban took effect. “To stop poaching and eliminate the value of ivory, you have to devalue it, and this law puts a value of zero on shark fins.”
Unfortunately, tusks and statuettes in San Francisco stores still have value. At the very least, they’re getting customers through the door. Perhaps San Franciscans need to do more to curb this disgusting demand and weed out illegal ivory.
“It’s out there. If you see something, say something,” John Calvelli of the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society told me.
To report suspicious carvings, call (888) 334-2258.